GOP cries foul over Democratic refusal to hold full committee vote on repeal amendment
Republicans in the state Senate are accusing Democrats who control the chamber of trampling on the minority party's rights, as Democrats on the Senate's Privileges and Elections committee refused Tuesday to hear a series of GOP-priority bills that had already died in subcommittee.
The bills included a proposal that Virginia endorse a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution and allow two-thirds of state legislatures to repeal any federal regulation or act of Congress, a top tea party priority that was approved by the House of Delegates on Tuesday on a vote of 59 to 34.
Among seven other bills that Republicans wanted the committee to hear was a proposal to make Virginia's law that bars employers from requiring workers to join unions a part of the state Constitution.
Each of the proposals had been heard and received negative votes in smaller subcommittees. At the start of the committee meeting, Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), the panel's chairwoman, announced that she did not intend for the full committee to hear any bill that had already died in subcommittee.
In the larger House of Delegates, bills are regularly killed in subcommittees. But bills in the Senate are generally heard by full committees, even if they receive negative subcommittee votes.
In this instance, however, Howell ruled out of order a motion by Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) that first the Repeal Amendment bill and then a block of the other seven Republican proposals be added to the committee's agenda.
"Upon what basis does the chair rule the motion to add the bill to the agenda out of order?" Obenshain asked Howell not long before the committee's vote.
"I believe it's out of order," Howell responded after a pause.
On a straight party vote of 9 to 6, the committee upheld Howell's parliamentary ruling -- effectively ending the debate on the bills in the Senate.
Democrats argued they were protecting the longstanding right of a committee chairman to determine the agenda for each of the Senate's 11 standing panels, using whatever criteria they choose.
But Republicans argued that the move runs counter to another Senate practice, in which committee chairmen have typically allowed individual senators to request that bills be added to committee dockets.
The move also effectively meant the Democrats were allowing its subcommittees -- which have a handful of members instead of the larger 15-member committee -- to kill bills. Republicans say that that practice runs counter to an opinion issued last year by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who presides over the Senate, that under the chamber's rules only full committees can take final action on bills.
Afterward, Obenshain and other Republicans told reporters that they do not plan to let the matter drop and plan to find other ways to protest the committee vote.
"If we are not going to abide by fundamental rules of parliamentary procedure or the rules upon which this body operates and has operated, if we are simply going to apply blunt force ... I think we are undermining the foundations of this representative democracy here in the cradle of our Democracy," he said.
Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), chair of the Democratic caucus and the Senate's rules committee, said the Senate's longstanding practice has been that committee chairmen have full say over their panel's agenda -- and weigh requests to add items from members on a case-by-case basis.
"This has been done for years. The chairman sets the docket," she said. "A request may be made of the chair to put something on the docket. And the chair decides whether or not to do it. That's the custom, usage and practice of the Senate, long-standing."
Most of the Republican measures that the committee declined to hear have already passed the House of Delegates and will be considered again by senators during the second half of the legislative session.
Rosalind S. Helderman
| January 25, 2011; 6:13 PM ET
Categories: General Assembly 2011, House of Delegates, Rosalind Helderman, State Senate
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